Transit summit of Atlanta’s northern suburbs seen as ‘breakthrough moment’

By Maria Saporta

Forty years ago, voters in Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties said “no” to MARTA — and that led to the rail transit system being built in only two counties — Fulton and DeKalb.

Fast forward to 2011. On Wednesday morning, leaders in Cobb, Gwinnett and Fulton held a summit to encourage the development of a regional transit system — especially in the north metro area.

The Metro Atlanta Northern Crescent Transit Summit is the outgrowth of a growing partnership between the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce, the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce as well as government leaders in those jurisdictions.

“This is about jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Brandon Beach, president of the North Fulton Chamber who also serves on the board of the Georgia Department of Transportation. “It’s time for us to have transit in the suburbs. It’s not just inside the loop anymore. We can not just have a two-county transit system.”

Leaders in Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett then unveiled part of their transit vision — which they are calling the “W.”

A transit line would run along the Northwest corridor from the Kennesaw area down to the Arts Center MARTA station. Another leg would go along the I-285 corridor. A third leg would extend the existing MARTA rail line up the 400 corridor. And the fourth leg would extend rail transit up the northeast corridor into Gwinnett County.

Possible Atlanta transit corridors would form a 'W'

The “W” would be developed in phases, but it would be part of an overall regional vision for transit — serving areas that have become much more urban in the four decades when the chose not to be part of the MARTA system.

Now voters will have a second chance. In 2012, they will have an opportunity to vote for a regional one penny transportation sales tax in the 10-county metro area.

But the significance of these northern jurisdictions having a half-day summit on transit was noted by several people in attendance.

Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, called the summit “unprecedented” and “ground-breaking.”

Leithead noted that having leaders in Cobb, North Fulton and Gwinnett “talking about transit wouldn’t have happened” until recently.

In an interview, MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott couldn’t hide her excitement.

“This is a breakthrough moment,” Scott said. “It’s absolutely wonderful. We are seeing how we can connect the region. We are thinking outside our geographic boundaries.”

Later, Scott addressed the entire summit audience.

“This is one of the most exciting meetings I’ve been to in the past three-and-a-half years,” Scott said, but added that it will be particularly import to “get rid of the restriction of the MARTA Act.”

She also referred to the fact that the bill as written will not allow any of the new revenues pay for MARTA’s operating costs — a restriction that does not apply to any of the 119 transit agencies in the state.

“We can’t have differential treatment on the biggest transit system in our region,” Scott said. “We’ve got to get rid of the old stuff and move forward together.”

Mike Bodker, mayor of Johns Creek in Fulton County, said the region needs to sell transit as improving the quality of life for everyone — those who would ride transit and those who would want others to ride transit so there would be less traffic.

Bodker also mentioned the potential economic development impact of having transit.

“We have to get real in our conversation with transit. For transit to be successful, you have to have land use policies to go with it.” Bodker said, adding that those land use policies would have to permit greater density along transit corridors.

Bodker also said that most of the mayors in Fulton and DeKalb counties are seeking assurances that the new tax revenue would be fair to MARTA’s jurisdictions.

Some mayors, who have been paying the MARTA tax, don’t feel they’re adequately served by the system. Then there are others who feel that MARTA is the back-bone for the region’s transit services but that those living outside of Fulton and DeKalb aren’t paying their share.

“We need regional transit,” Bodker said, who also added that “it must be funded by every one who wants transit.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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